NFL COACH VINCE LOMBARDI: HIS LIFE, CAREER, AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Albert E. Bruno

Abstract

Vince Lombardi’s NFL Coaching Highlights

Coach Vince Lombardi on Leadership

References

 

Abstract

This course project focuses on the life, coaching achievements, contributions, and legacy of NFL Coach Vince Lombardi. Coach Lombardi is regarded by most as the greatest NFL Coach of all time. His winning record and championships with the Green Bay Packers are still unmatched and unparalleled 36 years after his untimely death in 1970. Many herald Lombardi as the patron saint of the NFL.

The Lombardi legacy is still alive and well: Lombardi is the now the classic, winning model from which other coaches are and will be measured against in effectively assessing successful coaching and leadership. An investigation and understanding of Lombardi resonates with excellence and is well worth the time and effort of a detailed inquiry, reminding the present-day researcher and sporting world about the importance of team performance, dedication and perseverance of its members, and above all, winning. Working to be the best is always the coveted goal of worthwhile individual and organizational efforts, and it is never easy: No one did it better than Coach Lombardi during his tenure with the Green Bay Packers as head coach and general manager.

 

Vince Lombardi’s NFL Coaching Highlights

In the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers ruled the National Football League (NFL) with excellence by achieving 5 NFL Championships (i.e. three in a row – 1965, 1966, and 1967). Their coach was Vince Lombardi, the venerable one, who led the Green Bay dynasty and was voted by ESPN in 2000 as the Coach of the Century. That championship record still stands: No NFL team since Lombardi’s Packers has ever won three in a row. It was Lombardi’s, tremendous leadership to motivate and inspire players to play their best that transformed NFL coaching. Observably, Lombardi was responsible for turning the losing Packers (they only won one game the season before Lombardi became coach) into a championship team in just three years. With team development, Lombardi harnessed togetherness and nurtured a belief in each other that allowed players to perform collectively beyond their perceived physical and mental capabilities, chasing perfection and achieving excellence in the process. He coached the likes of quarterbacks Bart Starr and Zeke Bratkowski, running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, receivers Boyd Dowler, Max McGee, and Carroll Dale, offensive linemen Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg, defensive lineman Willie Davis, linebacker Ray Nitschke, and safeties Herb Aderley and Willie Wood. Under Lombardi’s direction, the Packers acquired six division titles, five NFL Championships (i.e. 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966, and 1967), two Super Bowl victories (I and II) and compiled an overall record of 98-30-4. Lombardi’s .758 winning percentage with the Packers is one of the highest in NFL history, achieving winning standards that others only dream of in the most rugged, team sport of all time.

In 1967, after nine phenomenal winning seasons with the Packers, Lombardi decided to retire as head coach (though he would still act as general manager). After less than a year away from the sidelines, Lombardi yearned to coach again. As a result, he accepted the head coaching position with a piece of the ownership with the Washington Redskins in 1969. Lombardi kept the winning tradition alive by leading the Redskins to a 7-5 record in his first year: their first winning record in 14 years. In January of 1970, his NFL head coaching record stood at a remarkable 105-35-6 with no losing season during his remarkable, 10-year watch. Deservingly, the NFL named him their acclaimed “1960s Man of the Decade.” Lombardi was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1971, following his untimely death in 1970.

Lombardi was even successful as the offensive coordinator for New York Giants from 1954 to 1959, under head coach Jim Lee Howell; Lombardi coached side-by-side with Tom Landry, the then Giants’defensive coordinator and future Dallas Cowboy Coach and currently a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. The previous season before Lombardi joined the club’s coaching staff, for the record, the Giants suffered through a 3-9 record and scored the least number of points in the NFL. Within three years of Lombardi’s arrival, however, the Giants won the NFL Championship in 1956 and three division titles. For each of the five years as the Giants’ offensive coordinator, Lombardi did not have a losing season.

Lombardi helped the men he coached succeed in getting the most of their God-given abilities better than any other coach in NFL history. He brought them pride and victory, and his legacy of perseverance, hard work, and dedication remain the staples of success for any worthwhile human endeavor to this very day. Lombardi was more than a football coach; he was a great leader in any forum for all-time, and that is why he is still remembered and often quoted so much so that the NFL’s most coveted, team award, that is the Super Bowl trophy, bears his name (i.e. The Vince Lombardi Trophy). Many herald Vince Lombardi as the patron saint of NFL: what reverence for a great coach and leader. Lombardi is now the classic, winning model from which other coaches are and will be measured against in effectively assessing successful coaching and leadership.

Vince Lombardi’s Early Years to Coaching at West Point

Vincent Thomas Lombardi was born on June 11, 1913, in Brooklyn, New York, to Neopolitan-born father Enrico “Harry” Lombardi (emigrated at age 2), a butcher, and

Brooklyn-born Matilda Izzo, the daughter of a barber, who had immigrated as teenagers just east of Salerno in southern Italy. Harry Lombardi was a strong, domineering father while his mother, Matilda was soft and caring, providing a strong religious-oriented, stable Catholic household. Italian mothers were usually the nurturers while the Italian fathers were the hard-driving enforcers of the household. Young Lombardi and his brothers were very much influenced by the strong will of their father, Harry. Phillips (2001), a Lombardi biographer, vividly describes Harry Lombardi:

At the age of eleven, he quit school to help support his family and became a well-respected and successful butcher. Short, stocky, and strong, Vince’s father was hot-tempered and overbearing. He had an intimidating style about him that allowed no back talk from his children. But he was honest, straightforward, and a pure perfectionist. Those around him had to do things right or not at all. He constantly lectured his three sons that they’d be successful only if worked harder than everybody else. Harry always advised his sons on how to succeed in life. “Before you do what you want to do,” he told them, “before you can exist as an individual, the first thing you have to do is accept duty, the second thing is respect for authority, and the third is to develop a strong, mental discipline.” (p. 2).

Lombardi was raised in the Sheepshead Bay area of southern Brooklyn and attended public schools through eighth grade. After eighth grade, young Lombardi faced the first critical decision of his young life: Where should be continue his education?

In 1928, at age 15, he entered the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, a diocesan preparatory seminary and a six year secondary program to become a Catholic priest. Why did Lombardi choose the preparatory seminary? Maraniss (1999), an award-winning Lombardi biographer, explains in detail:

The Trinity of Vince Lombardi’s early years was religion, family, and sports. They seemed interwined, as inseparable to him as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The church was not some distant institution to be visited once a week, but part of the rhythm of daily life. When his mother baked bread, it was one for the Lombardis, one for the priests, with Vince shuttling down the block between his house and the St. Mark’s Rectory delivering food and tendering invitations. Father Daniel McCarthy took Vince and his best friend, Joe Goettisheim, to ball games in Flatbush and Coney Island. Harry Lombardi was not particularly devout then, but enjoyed swapping stories, eating and drinking with men of the cloth. Matilda was a regular communicant. From an early age, her son Vince revealed an equally strong affinity to Catholicism’s routine. He accompanied his mother in prayers to St. Jude and St. Anthony, the family’s patron saints, and toted his own prayer book to church for seven o’clock mass. His mother’s favorite picture of Vince as a child shows him standing in front of the house on confirmation day, resplendent in buffed black shoes, knee socks, dark knickers, white shirt, striped tie and double-breasted suit coat, with a boutonniere pinned to his left lapel. The faint glimmer of a shy smile appears on his scrubbed face. His own clearest memory of his religious youth was the Easter Sunday when he Joe Goettisheim, both twelve, served as altar boys. It was while standing there amid the color and pageantry, scarlet and white vestments, golden cross, scepters, the wafers and wine, body and blood, the obedient flock coming forward, that the inspiration came to him that he should become a priest. As an altar boy, he never wanted to be just another candle bearer, but up front in the procession, bearing the cross (p. 19-20).

After four years of a six-year, preparatory seminary program, Lombardi decided not to pursue this vocational and spiritual path toward priesthood. He was a good athlete and a solid high school football player; he loved the physicality and camaraderie of sports and continued playing sports in spite of the discouraging views of sports by his seminary priests and teachers; Maraniss (1999) describes Lombardi, the student and adolescent, at Cathedral College, the seminary, this way:

He was remembered at Cathedral for three characteristics: his smile, a sudden, wide flash of teeth that heated the room; occasional eruptions of anger; and his physical maturity. He had the body of an adult at age fifteen – his own adult body, in fact. He was the same height and almost the same weight as a freshman at Cathedral, five eight and 175 pounds, as he was in his senior year at college. It was his intimidating physical presence, and his desire to lead, that helped Lombardi get elected president of his section of thirty-five classmates, known as Class B four ears in a row, unanimously every time. The student magazine proclaimed that he could have the job as long as he wanted it…Few of the boys knew much about him outside the classroom. They knew that he played football on a sandlot team on Sunday afternoon. Every now and then he arrived at school with a black eye, which he earned boxing in a Golden Gloves program under a pseudonym. The Cathedral priests disapproved of violent sports; the only thing worse was going out with girls. Boys found to be dating faced suspension. This was essential part of culling process; only a third of the students survived the first four years of high school at the seminary (p. 26-27).

The love for football, in particular, and sports, in general, won out over the calling for priesthood; consequently, he transferred to the St. Francis Preparatory High School, where he was a standout on the football team, making the All-City team as a fullback.

In 1933, Lombardi accepted a football scholarship to Fordham University in the Bronx to play for Sleepy Jim Crowley, the new head coach who was one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame under Coach Knute Rockne in the 1920s. During the early 1930s, Fordham was recognized as the largest Catholic university in the nation; Fordham was nationally heralded for stressing character and the development of social morality. Relevantly, Phillips (2001) recalls Lombardi’s impact at Fordham:

At Fordham, Lombardi gained a reputation for being extremely tough – playing all-out, even when seriously hurt. At one practice, after suffering a separation of his small intestine, he was carried off the field writhing in pain. Severe internal bleeding landed him in the hospital. But, amazingly, he showed up for practice the next day, only to collapse on the sidelines. So again, the trainers hauled him back to the hospital, where he was confined for several more days. On another occasion, Lombardi continued to play a regular-season game even though several teeth had been knocked out. In later years, Lombardi was fond of retelling the story – saying that his father had often him to ignore the small injuries, that hurt is in the mind (p. 3).

Lombardi was converted from fullback to offensive guard. Lombardi was an undersized offensive guard at 5’8” and 185 lbs., but his hustle and toughness won him a starting position at guard on Fordham’s offensive line. He and the offensive line gained football notoriety and were acclaimed as the Seven Blocks of Granite for their staunch, tough play on the line. In the classroom, Lombardi was, at best, a slightly above average student. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Fordham in June 1937; he was 24 years old. The importance of Fordham in Lombardi’s life went beyond football. It was Lombardi’s understanding of the Jesuit tradition and philosophy at Fordham that would forever fuel his methodologies in coaching, leadership, and in life. Maraniss (1999) explains:

There is a direct line in thinking from the Jesuits to football to what would become the philosophy of Vince Lombardi. The Jesuits rejected the notion of predestination, arguing that anyone could attain a state of perfection with enough zeal; perfection went to those who sought it most eagerly. They believed in man’s liberty to choose between action and inaction, good and evil, but like the military and football coaches, they also maintained a hierarchical order in which the inferior submits willingly to the superior. This willingness to accept a rightful order required believing that the chief – God, the general, the coach –loved each member of the group with the same love. The seeming contradiction between free will and blind obedience was resolved by the Jesuits through the vision of a mystical goal: only those with free will could surrender it freely to achieve a higher ideal (p. 65).

The devotion to Catholicism and a deep understanding and practice of Jesuit philosophy would provide Lombardi with the spiritual direction and balance necessary in his life as coach, father, and spouse. Lombardi’s daily attendance to early morning mass as a child became a staple in his life – something he would continue to observe the rest of his life.

In 1939, after two years of unfulfilling jobs, semi-professional football with the Brooklyn Eagles (bulking up to 205 lbs.) and Wilmington Clippers, and a semester of Fordham’s law school at night, Lombardi gladly accepted an assistant coaching job at St. Cecilia’s, a Catholic high school in Englewood, New Jersey. He was hired by its new coach, a Fordham teammate, former quarterback “Handy” Andy Palau. In addition to coaching, Lombardi, age 26, also taught Latin, chemistry, and physics for an annual salary of under $1800 at the high school. He and Palau shared a boarding house room across the street for $1.50 each per week.

In 1940, Lombardi married Marie Planitz, a cousin of another Fordham teammate,

Jim Lawlor. In 1942, Palau left for Fordham , Lombardi became the head coach at St. Cecilia, and Lombardi fathered his only son, Vince Lombardi, Jr. At St. Cecilia, Lombardi was given his first opportunities as head coach for football and basketball, and he turned out to be extraordinarily successful at both; Lombardi stayed on a total of eight years (five as head coach). Phillips (2001) recalls the stellar debut and overall record of Coach Lombardi at St. Cecilia’s:

Under his direction, the high school won six state championships in the two sports. In football, Lombardi’s teams ran off a thirty-two-game unbeaten streak. And, at one point, his teams won twenty-three games in a row. One local sportswriter took particular note of the winning ways at St. Cecilia and gave much credit to the school’s head coach. Part of the reason that Lombardi’s players were willing to work with him was that he nurtured and cared for them like a father. When Lombardi succeeded, so did they. As a matter of fact, twenty-two of St. Cecilia’s players were named to All-County and All-State teams while he was coach (p. 4).

Lombardi left for Fordham in 1947 to coach the freshman teams in football and basketball. The following year he served as an assistant coach for Fordham’s varsity football team. His coaching stay at Fordham would be a brief one. In 1948, Lombardi fathered his only daughter, Susan Lombardi. Vince Jr. was now six years old. Susan would be the second and last child born to Vince and Marie Lombardi. Following the 1948 football season, Lombardi accepted another assistant’s job, at the United States Military Academy, a position that would greatly influence his future coaching style. As offensive line coach under legendary head coach Colonel Red Blaik, Lombardi worked long hours and refined his leadership skills. Blaik’s emphasis on execution would become a hallmark of Lombardi’s NFL teams. Phillips (2001) writes about Blaik’s influence on Lombardi:

Coach Earl Blaik was an important person for Vince Lombardi to have adopted as a mentor. His practice sessions were precise, efficient, and highly organized. He was meticulous in his understanding and teaching of the sport – and very demanding in its execution by the players. And Earl Blaik was conscientious, honest, and fair, though also a hardworking taskmaster. He was a man who didn’t take vacations, who was determined, persistent, and driven to succeed. Vince savored every moment and appreciated all that he had learned from his mentor (p. 5).

Lombardi coached at West Point for five seasons with varying results. The 1949, 1950, and 1953 seasons were very successful, but the 1951 and 1952 seasons were poor and mediocre, respectively, due to the aftermath the cadet cribbing scandal in the spring of 1951, severely depleting the talent on the football team. Following these five seasons at Army, Lombardi accepted an assistant coaching position with the NFL’s New York Giants.

Coach Vince Lombardi on Winning

No head coach in NFL history has been quoted more on winning and leadership axioms than Lombardi; Lombardi was really ahead of his time in the 1960s, creating a winning system as a classic model of leadership for all professions and occupations to emulate. Nowadays, mention “Lombardi” and a certain magic still lingers in the name. When speaking about winning and character-building in organizations, Lombardi comes to mind. If business people speak about the importance of punctuality and preparedness, they are reminded about “Lombardi time” (i.e. 10 minutes earlier than the scheduled time) and a “commitment to excellence,” sacrificing for the greater good, the organizational goal, to insure enhanced quality of a person’s life, for examples. It does not stop there; Lombardisms, they almost could be called, have permeated every sector of society, instilling confidence and achievement efforts among employees in organizations throughout America. Lombardisms invoke a call for action, a call for winning at all cost.

There will probably never be a coach and leader with a better ability to organize, rally the troops, and win. In many school, sporting, and corporate structures, Lombardi contributions are revived every time there is a call for team improvement and winning. What a tremendous accolade for a deserving and great coach, but it was not without plenty of sacrifice and hard work on his part. Lombardi learned from his parents, his religion (Catholicism), the Jesuits at Fordham, and great coaches like Fordham’s Jim “Sleepy” Crowley, a disciple of Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne; Earl “Colonel Red” Blaik, West Point’s best ever; and Jim Lee Howell of the New York Giants; observably, history certainly chronicles this, Lombardi’s work was remarkable: He was the attentive and engaging student of the game who embellished the work of coaching notables to a new height of coaching genius and sport leadership. According to Lombardi, hard work and the will to win, a character-in-action, is what makes people and organizations thrive and succeed. Therefore, learning from Lombardi should be encouraged as an ongoing process of promoting character-in-action for today’s leaders when improved, team performance and winning are the company goals. What follows are Lombardi’s renditions on winning and leadership.

Everything that Lombardi speaks about, that is leadership, character, commitment, and discipline, naturally lead to winning like free-flowing tributaries merging into the main river, swiftly, and upstream with impetus. The name, Lombardi, in America, has become associated and synonymous with winning. After all, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” (vincelombardi.com). That celebrated axiom is probably recalled more often than anything else Lombardi has profoundly stated in his great coaching tenure. However, it should be noted, it was first uttered by UCLA Coach Henry Sanders in the 1940s, but it is attributed to Lombardi time and time again. Afterwards, Lombardi regretted making that statement; he retorted with this explanation: “I wish to hell I’d never said the damned thing. I meant the effort. I meant having a goal…I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality” (Lombardi, 2001, p. 230). Verifiably, like it or not, Lombardi did say it, and history has recorded it as his property on winning philosophies, although evidence points to Coach Sanders saying it first. Poignantly, that hard-hitting axiom has concisely framed the very essence of the Lombardi legacy for most. Insightfully, Vince Lombardi, Jr. (2001) summarizes:

I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who know nothing about my father except that (1) he was a football coach and (2) he uttered (or endorsed or seemed to have endorsed) that truly memorable sentence. Some people take the saying on face value and agree with it. Other people are a little uncomfortable with the aggressive little statement. A third group of people are deeply offended by it. They take it as the distillation of everything that’s wrong with football, American culture, capitalism, or mankind (p. 226).

The intensity of such an enormous statement on winning is received differently by people as is evident, but its impact is surely felt by most. Along the same lines, Coach Lombardi also writes: “The will to excel and the will to win – they endure” (Lombardi, 2001, p. 227). This statement really reflects what Lombardi wanted to say originally because Lombardi was always focusing on the will: The will to win is what fuels the run to win. The goal for Team Lombardi was winning. Winning was the company mission. The company business for Lombardi was football and his organization was the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi spoke about the rigors of the football organization and its objective on winning:

Being part of a football team is no different than being a part of any other organization – an army, a political party. The objective is to win, to beat the other guy. You think that is hard or cruel – I don’t think it is. I do think it is a reality of life that men are competitive, and the more competitive the business, the more competitive the men. They know the rules, and they know the objective, and they get in the game. And the objective is to win – fairly, squarely, decently, by the rules, but to win (Lombardi, 2001, p. 234).

As a result, Lombardi was criticized for making winning the most important goal in a game of brutality among men. Lombardi’s critics accused him of callousness and insensitivity.

In defense of his strong emphasis on winning, Lombardi fired back, repeatedly saying: “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?” (vincelombardi.com). They keep score because the winners need to be recognized and rewarded for their commendable efforts. Lombardi affirms the grace of winning:

I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he was worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on field of battle – victorious (vincelombardi.com).

Winning places the victor on the highest rung of success; conversely, according to

Lombardi, losing is never laughable, and it is the time when men need to examine themselves, a soul-searching experience if you will, and make that firm resolution to battle back more competitively than before. Players did not want to be around Lombardi after a Green Bay loss, and son, Vince Lombardi, Jr., too, admitted his family did not want to be around him after a losing effort by the Packers, especially if the Packers played poorly. Lombardi would eventually accept a loss on the field because “after all, we are not perfect,” he would say, but the effort had to be a solid one – a close game to the end. However, Lombardi was discerning and consoled his players about losing, saying: “In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail (vincelombardi.com). Losing was not a habit or practice for the Green Bay Packers, and it did not happen often during Lombardi’s winning reign in the NFL.

Lombardi spoke to the importance of discipline and consistency as the necessary cogs of the winning formula; he writes:

Winning is not a something thing: it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do the right thing once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing (vincelombardi.com).

Disciplining oneself by sacrificing, being consistent, and being committed all lead to winning, according to Lombardi. Ultimately, a person’s character is shaped by discipline, and Lombardi constantly reminded his players of that. In particular, Lombardi wrote this about discipline:

It’s easy to have faith in yourself and have discipline when you’re a winner, when you’re number one. What you’ve got have is faith and discipline when you’re not yet a winner (vincelombardi.com).

Lombardi spoke to the importance of faith along with discipline toward achieving the winning formula. He was right: Faith is the belief system within the individual and discipline is the orderliness and the rightful actions that the individual performs to become a winner. Lombardi speaks to the importance of the grinds, the efforts, in life:

And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat (vincelombardi.com).

Lombardi believed that the grinds, the knocks, and the repetitions are the building blocks of outstanding efforts and building a winning team.

With sound religious and military-like training, Lombardi understood the importance of discipline and communicated it frequently to his players in building a winning organization; in essence, Lombardi understood that there could be no winning without discipline. Discipline is the key. No one in football has been able to duplicate the winning ways of the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. History proves Lombardi right on winning. Winning is Lombardi.

 

Coach Vince Lombardi on Leadership

Building a winning organization like Lombardi did at Green Bay made Lombardi a household name in the 1960s and a leader to be revered because his winning ways and charisma had transcended him beyond football into business, education, and even politics. As a matter of fact, President Richard Nixon had considered asking Lombardi to join him as his vice presidential, running mate in 1968, until he learned that Lombardi was a Kennedy democrat. In addition, Lombardi was approached as a candidate for the U.S. Senate and was talked about for a gubernatorial run in Wisconsin as well. His public stock was soaring due to all the recognition he reaped for establishing a winning tradition in Green Bay, but he declined the political offers. Lombardi was strictly a football coach, a great one, indeed, and politics was not his passion; football was his love, and he knew it. The Packers were winning, and Lombardi’s leadership in coaching reigned over the NFL. Winning organizations do not just become victorious and heralded without a character person leading the way. Lombardi believed that “Character is the perfectly disciplined will,” (Lombardi, 2001, p. 44). Character is built on truth and faith as well. Lombardi was that remarkable character that would successfully lead the Packers into football immortality. Relevantly, Lombardi states:

Leadership rests not only upon ability, not only upon capacity; having the capacity to lead is not enough. The leader must be willing to use his authority. His leadership is then based on truth and character. There must be truth in the purpose and will power in the character (vincelombardi.com).

Winning made the sports world notice that winning is based on exceptional leadership, clamoring for Lombardi leadership techniques in sports programs in schools and colleges throughout the land. Lombardi’s public appearances were increasing, and he was a hot commodity and celebrity on the rise; Lombardi began writing down his thoughts about leadership, creating speeches and axioms that would define his leadership style for all-time. Winning for Lombardi prompted others to ask Lombardi to define what leadership meant to him, that is what good leaders do to inspire their teams organizations. Relevantly, Vince Lombardi, Jr. (2001) recalls his father’s speeches:

Like all great speakers, he left his audience asking for more. In fact, many organizations asked him to come back repeatedly. Nobody seemed to mind that the Speech didn’t change from year to year. They wanted inspiration, and Vince Lombardi gave it to them. Inspiration is essential, like air and food. But I think there is even more to be gotten out of my father’s words and deeds (2001, p. 42).

Lombardi was certainly hard-working, but coaching and winning were what made Lombardi. His writing and speech-giving on winning and leadership came later in his career because his winning record, just on face value, spoke volumes about his credibility. He wrote about leadership axioms and goals but did not leave much of road map on how to achieve what he had truly experienced and achieved as a great coach and leader because Mother Time would take him from us early like so many great leaders in history. Lombardi believed that “Leadership is based on a spiritual quality; the power to inspire, the power to inspire others to follow” (vincelombardi.com). He believed that leadership was special and God-sponsored so, leaders must excel. He very much wanted good leaders to be recognized and rewarded for their achievements; Lombardi writes:

Our society, at the present time, seems to have sympathy only for the misfit, the maladjusted, the criminal, the loser. Assist them – absolutely. But I think it is high time that we stand up for the doer, the achiever, the winner, and the leader, the one who sets out to do something and does it. The one who recognizes the problems and opportunities at hand, and deals with them, and is successful, and is not worrying about the failings of others. The one who is constantly looking for more to do. The one who carries the work of the world on his shoulders. We will never create a good society, much less a great one, until individual excellence is respected and encouraged (Lombardi, 2001, p. 37).

Lombardi was on-the-mark with recognizing individual excellence because a great society is measured by the achievements of its citizens. A commitment to excellence was very much what Lombardi believed and preached to his players, saying, “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence” (vincelombardi.com).

Winning bestowed Lombardi with great respect as a leader because great deeds usually require great directions to accomplish worthwhile outcomes. What qualifies a leader to lead? Excellence was materialized with the creation of a Lombardi leadership model (2001); naturally, it was outlined by his son, Vince Lombardi, Jr. The Lombardi leadership model is built on four, major tenets: 1) knowing self, 2) building character, 3) earning competence, and 4) building vision. Those four tenets will follow in this discussion.

Everyone, it seemed, marveled at the winning success that Lombardi achieved at Green Bay and had people wondering what was exemplary about his leadership. Everyone loves a winner, at least most of the time. When asked about what are the qualities or characteristics of great leadership, Lombardi responded:

What is needed, too, is people who will keep their head in an emergency, no matter what the field. Leaders, in other words, who meet intricate problems with wisdom and with courage. Leadership is not just one quality, but rather a blend of many qualities. And while no one individual possesses all of the talents that are needed for leadership, each man can develop a combination that can make him a leader. Contrary to the opinion of many leaders are not born; they are made. And they are made by hard effort, which is the price we pay for success (Lombardi, 2001, p. 37).

Leaders are not selected to lead simply by their birthright; they need to be trained and molded into leaders, and it does not come easily. Hard work is always part of leader success as they (leaders) embellish their skills and resourcefulness and strive for competence, getting results as Lombardi did with his winning ways at Green Bay. According to Lombardi, self-knowledge is the central building block for character. Identifying leader strengths as well as weaknesses and shortcomings is crucial to leading more effectively; Lombardi writes: “If I had to do things all over again, I think I would pray for more patience maybe, and more understanding” (Lombardi, 2001, p. 43). Self-knowledge of leader strengths and areas needing improvement allows leaders to plan and execute more successfully, of course.

Seemingly, everything Lombardi professed about centered in some way on hard work, discipline, and character as the necessary ingredients of successful leadership; Lombardi writes about mental toughness and a leader’s will:

Mental toughness is many things. It is humility. It is simplicity. The leader always remembers that simplicity is the sign of true greatness and meekness, the sign of true strength. Mental toughness is Spartanism, with all its qualities of self-denial, sacrifice, dedication, fearlessness, and love. Mental toughness is also the perfectly disciplined will. The strength of your group is in your will – in the will of the leader. The difference between a successful man and others is not in the lack of strength, nor in the lack of knowledge, but rather, in the lack of will. The real difference between men is energy. It is in the strong will, the settled purpose, the invincible determination. But remember that the will is character in action. If we would create something, we must be something. This is character. Character is more than intellect. Character is the direct result of mental attitude. A man cannot dream himself into character; he must hammer and forge one for himself (Lombardi, 2001, p. 38-39).

Lombardi calls for a character leader that builds character among its members. Character, Lombardi points out, cannot be wished for; it does not magically appear. It must be developed from within (introspection): A process that only the individual can make that happen for himself or herself, the hard way, through hard work and life’s lessons. That is the Lombardi model on leading by exuding character and building character among team members. Therefore, if Lombardi is right about the importance of the character quality, leadership without character is eventually leadership not at all. Character builds and promotes successful leadership in organizations per Lombardi, and he is right, again.

Self-knowledge, character development, and competence are three of the four tenets of the Lombardi leadership model; their relevance to leadership success has been discussed in this presentation. That leaves the big picture, which is a vision for success, to discuss. Lombardi writes:

The difference between a good coach and an average coach is knowing what you want, and knowing what the end is supposed to look like. If a coach doesn’t know what the end is supposed to look like, he won’t know if when he sees it (Lombardi, 2001, p. 46).

Building a vision for organizational success is crucial in leadership. A comprehensive vision is much like the main river with its tributaries (i.e. self-knowledge, character development, and competence), merging there at the main to form one, powerful rush moving toward the mouth of the river. Verifiably, a comprehensive, clear vision unifies the whole organization under one robust purpose, one mission. Lombardi (2001) writes about the importance of enlisting support for the Lombardi vision:

The key to my father’s success was his extraordinary ability to get people to go beyond themselves – to give more to the cause than they ever believed they were capable of giving. He did this through his personal example of enormous energy and unflagging commitment. He did this by embodying the high standards that he wanted to see in others. He did this by bestowing or withholding his approval. When you got that smile, that pat on the back, that “Attaboy!”, it made all the sacrifice and the hardship seem worthwhile. And the next day, you’d start all over again, working to win his approval and avoid his disapproval. I know this is what motivated his players, and it’s certainly what motivated me (2001, p. 47).

The troops, through the character-building program in the Green Bay organization, believed in their leader, Lombardi; because of that belief and trust, skillfully and remarkably on the world stage, Lombardi rallied-the-troops under the team’s vision for winning and succeeded in an enormous way so much so that Lombardi will always be remembered for leading a winning team into NFL Hall of Fame.

The Lombardi leadership model is a great one because it is based on such qualities as self-knowledge, competence, character, and vision in organizations. “As a manager, wouldn’t your job be infinitely easier if the people working with you embodied these qualities?” asks Vince Lombardi, Jr. (2001, p. 48). The Lombardi leadership model remains a classic for leaders to emulate nearly 36 years after the death of its inventor. After all, Lombardi is great leadership.

For modern-day leaders, Lombardi’s tenets of self-knowledge and competence more times than not are accomplished by individual sacrifice and determination. A dedicated leader can assess his or her knowledge base through skill inventories, tests, and experiences. Competence is usually acquired by hard work, repetitions, and experiences, too, mostly through individual effort. However, modern-day leaders seem to fall short at promoting Lombardi’s tenets of character-building and vision-building within organizations because they are less individualistic and require more cooperation and collaboration among the team members to become realized. Cooperation and collaboration are nebulous factors and often require exceptional, interpersonal skills to successfully build character and build vision in organizations: Variables that are more difficult to control and oversee. That is where successful leadership bogs down in public schools, for example. Getting teaching personnel on the same page for character and vision building in schools is a frustration shared by school leaders, garnering support for school-wide, improvement initiatives. Character and vision building seem to be more boundless and elastic in the equation aimed at achieving leadership success; contrarily, self-knowledge and competence are more specific, more visible, and can be isolated and improved with better regularity. The beauty of the Lombardi leadership model is that he harnessed all four tenets masterfully and gracefully into a winning wonderland for the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. Proudly before games in the Green Bay Locker Room, Lombardi reminded his players, saying: “Remember this: You are the Green Bay Packers, and you are the world champions of football. Make me proud” (vincelombardi.com). It must have been a memorable, uplifting experience to be a Green Bay player on game day and be inspired by the Coach of the Century (as voted by ESPN).

Remembering Coach Vince Lombardi in 2006

In 2006, Lombardi’s spirit still resonates throughout the American landscape like a shepherd gathering his flock, moving purposefully to their next destination. The flock organizes and huddles together, recognizing one and only one, distinct voice that leads them to grassy fields where replenishment is a staple of life. That intense voice, the forceful voice of Lombardi, commands a certain respect that few have been able to wield in those football fields of opportunity. Respectfully, some have called Lombardi the patron saint of the NFL: Lombardi has become the embodiment of everything what was once good about sports and the eternal values of competition. The mere mention of his name brings to mind and celebrates such qualities as character, courage, and sacrifice in schools and colleges, corporations, and sporting organizations (from Pop Warner Football Programs through the professional ranks). Lombardi has influenced and touched virtually every sector of the American society, instilling confidence and demanding excellence from its participants in the quest for winning. The Lombardi name is a summoning, a call-to-arms, and a call for discipline, effort, and most of all – winning. Lombardi has become synonymous with winning in America. That is why Lombardi remains a symbol of what was once great about the NFL and, perhaps, is no longer; but, he still keeps appearing in education, sports, and corporate formulas for success and winning.

Lombardi is exemplary because he was ahead of his time with his approach to winning and leadership. To realize those ends, he instilled character-building in his players, and character-building meant working hard on the basics by drilling through repetitions, chasing perfection and settling for excellence in the process. Emphasis on the basics certainly applies today in almost everything; many are calling for a return-to-the-basics, even in retail technology. Scheraga (2004) credits Lombardi about the importance of the basics:

Lombardi’s contention was that to play strong football, it is more important to execute a few basics flawlessly than it is to perform a wide range of skills carelessly. Lombardi’s concentration on the basics succeeded famously. His Green Bay Packers won five NFL titles and two Super Bowls in the nine years he coached them. Lombardi’s lesson is applicable to IT, too…I’m telling you again, because Lombardi was right: The basics are crucial, and too often, they aren’t emphasized enough (p. 12).

Essentially, Lombardi’s leadership model is present in today’s, retail technology industry as portrayed by the points made by Scheraga (2004). In the corporate world, as well, Lombardi is often mentioned in the same sentence with excellence; Rothke (2003) writes:

If Lombardi were a chief information security officer today, he would be relentless in pursing quality; excellence; the understanding of risk. Chief security officers today cannot find a better role model (p. 24).

The Lombardi legacy is about a commitment to excellence and building character in the leader and the organization. Chasing perfection was an everyday practice for the Lombardi in search of excellence: Lombardi was relentless and pushed the winning agenda on his players; that was first and the Lombardi way. Rathledge (2001) writes in detail:

The term that suited him best was perfectionist. He made harsh demands on his players to prepare them for the harsher demands of the game. He felt that every fiber in your body should be used in pursuit of excellence. Lombardi would not tolerate excuses or compromises. He was interested only in results. He taught his players that success and winning are habits. To play for him, you had to be mentally tough. Aches and pains were of no consequence to him. His signature play was the power sweep. There was no mystery about the play. Opponents knew what was coming. The only problem they had was stopping it. Lombardi spent an immense amount of time on this play. He demanded that every component part of it had to be executed precisely (p. 16).

Lombardi’s emphasis on teaching the basics to near, perfect execution meant excellence, and excellence cultivates winning teams. He was a great motivator, too;

Singer (2000) writes:

Regarding motivation, Lombardi was a master, and here again his example is relevant to business. All things being equal, a manager who can engender trust and loyalty from subordinates will reap a higher performance over time (p. 10).

Lombardi accomplished the arduous task of motivating his players by actively demonstrating motivation and commitment to his players with his tremendous energy and preparation during practices and meetings. He paid the price, and as a matter of fact, Lombardi, too, dealt with adversity and hostility among his players. He was discerning and fair, and, then, he made the necessary adjustments. Crow (1972) recalls:

How do you think a hater could be used in football? As a linebacker! That’s right; so Lombardi made that kind of assignment for hostile men. Jesus, too, used hostility…Hostility can be used in a positive way. Lombardi turned “haters” into linebackers and he turned “lovers” into split ends and quarterbacks (p. 253).

Lombardi knew football, but more importantly, Lombardi knew how to use individual talents for the greater good of the team, harnessing the players strengths while directing a winning project; however, there are the Lombardi detractors out there still condemning the man for placing winning first, above all. Hammill (2000) writes:

One of the more widely accepted maxims of modern American life was uttered on a frozen winter afternoon during the early sixties. The late Vince Lombardi, who coached the Green Bay Packers when they were the greatest team in football, said it. “Winning isn’t everything,” he declared. “It’s the only thing.” Vince Lombardi’s notion was immediately appropriated by an extraordinary variety of American males: presidents and lesser politicians, generals, broadcasters, political columnists, little league coaches, heads of corporations, and probably millions of others. We’ve learned in this century, that the world is a complex place; it’s certainly not the National Football League. Winning isn’t the only thing in love, art, marriage, commerce, or politics; it not even the only in sports…The true athlete teaches us that winning isn’t everything, but struggle is – the struggle to simply get up in the morning or to see hope through minefields of despair (p. 16).

It is true that Lombardi believed in winning, first and foremost, but there was a compassionate side of him, even for the loser. Lombardi speaks to losing: “In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail” (vincelombardi.com). Although remembered and revered most for winning, Lombardi had a sense of balance and realized that every game could not be won.

It has been nearly 36 years since his untimely death, and Lombardi still exudes an exemplary character-in-action by emphasizing the basics, insisting on hard-working team members, and winning with consistency on the battlefield. Success has a price, and Lombardi understood that clearly. Looking at Lombardi objectively, Bowman (1999) writes:

It was the real Lombardi, the very essence of the man and the means by which he transformed himself into the myth. Like the rest of us, Lombardi had his faults, but unlike the rest of us, his faults were also his virtues, and the reasons we remember and admire him so long after his death (p. 13).

Observably though, Lombardi has withstood the test of time and people, who remember him still admire his ways. One such person is Dr. Linda Casser, optometrist and associate dean for academic programs at the Pacific University College, in Forest Grove, Oregon. Haseldine (2003) writes about the academic who lives by Lombardi:

Whether Dr. Casser tackles a clinical book or a “how to” guide, she pursues each with the same mindset, which is summed up in the words of legendary football Coach Vince Lombardi. “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” Appropriate words for this Wisconsin native to have framed in her office at Pacific University College. After all, Mr. Lombardi made his legend coaching the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League before his name was given to the Super Bowl Trophy. Throughout her 25-year career in academic life, Casser has committed her life to the pursuit of that philosophy (p. 30).

Living and striving in the Lombardi way is a noble undertaking, and Dr. Casser is a great example how the enduring, Lombardi philosophy for leading and winning continues to positively affect people he has touched in some way. The Lombardi legacy seems to be mentioned every time someone discusses great leadership. Weingardt (2000) emphasizes that creating a strong lasting legacy as a strong leaders can help make the world a better place; Weingardt (2000) specifically writes about Lombardi’s greatness as a leader:

Look at Vince Lombardi’s astonishing turnaround of the Green Bay Packers in the early 1960s. He took unmotivated, undisciplined, and underperformers, got them fit physically and mentally, and turned them into world champions in less than three years…Effective leaders identify opportunities; they have a vision that others will embrace and rally around. They know how to get their followers to buy into their vision and take it as their own. Remember, a leader without followers is a loner. With followers who do not believe in your vision, you will neither get much done nor effect much change (p. 43).

Great leaders are visionaries, and Lombardi was certainly a visionary, a leader, a winner, a remarkable character, and much, much more. Lombardi was right about the importance of building character from within among the players and, then, tying it to the team vision for winning. The Lombardi leadership model still shows today’s leaders that leading is embedded in visions for success; therefore, following the Lombardi line of thinking, cultivating character from within the organization enlists member commitment to those visions. Leadership without vision is leadership not at all, according to Lombardi logic.

Lombardi’s emphasis on character building was complemented by a strong sense of integrity; he was a square shooter, fair, and a moral leader as well. Phillips (2001) sums up Lombardi and his contributions to leadership and society: “He was able to combine a caring and compassionate nature with an enviable ability to get things done. Lombardi had heart – and he had goals that went beyond the game of football.” Moreover, he was able to successfully achieve those goals by employing a strong measure of ethics and morality. “Your moral integrity is the most priceless thing you possess,” he lectured his players. “With Lombardi,” remembered Sonny Jurgenson, “cheating was out.” Vince Lombardi’s principles, his style, and the way he lived his life can be employed as a sterling model for effective leadership in any organization – football, business, and beyond. His insight into the problems that continuously face a struggling world are still appropriate today. And his words, even though spoken more than thirty years ago, can serve to guide any society searching for a better way. Lombardi writes, “In a large sense, we are engaged right now in a struggle that is far more fiercely contested than any game. It is a struggle for the hearts, for the minds, and for the souls of all of us, and it is a game in which there are no spectators, only players…The test of this century will be whether man mistakes the growth of wealth and power with the growth of spirit and character…Our country needs people will keep their heads in emergencies; in other words, leaders who will meet the intricate problems with wisdom and courage (p. 180-181).

Relevantly, Lombardi was speaking to a calling for great leaders for a society, he hoped, not to be overtaken by greed and wealth. Lombardi was a character man, and greed and excesses were deeply disturbing to him, especially in the late 1960s; understandably, he was liberal on issues concerning the needy and on issue of social justice, and he was taking an opportunity through his celebrity to comment on the social issues of the day, specifically the youth countermovement as he saw it. Lombardi’s plea for better leadership and for a better society suddenly ended when he was admitted to Georgetown Hospital in June 1970 and died (way before his time) of colon cancer on September 3, 1970, at age 57: A battle even the great Lombardi could not win. Lombardi did not lose; he simply ran out of time quickly. The ones Lombardi was closest, his immediate family and the Green Bay family of players, spoke of the loss of Lombardi; Phillips (2001) writes:

He had an even greater influence on the people with whom he came into contact over the course of his life. “He’s the greatest coach I every played under,” said Paul Hornung. “I would have gone through a wall for that guy.” Most players immediately realized what they had lost – and despaired of ever seeing the likes of it again. In the many tributes and recollections since Lombardi’s death, two words – love and father – have often been repeated by the players. These were grown men speaking about loving another man as much as they loved their own dads. That certainly indicates something more than simply a coach/player type of relationship. To some, Lombardi was a father teaching his sons. Bart Starr said of Lombardi, “I owe my life to that man” (p. 178).

Lombardi nurtured something special in the lives he touched. Certainly he demanded character people committed to excellence; that is as basic and good a leader must be in creating a winning organization like Lombardi did in Green Bay. Nowadays in 2006, Lombardi remains special, and so many leaders, coaches, and teachers try to live a vibrant, Lombardi-like life by giving it their best in the things that mean the most. The Lombardi legacy still compels people to be hard working and disciplined in achieving worthwhile goals in life. That is so Lombardi.

Undeniably, the spirit of Lombardi seems to be everywhere? When there is a special call for decisive action, Lombardi is there, but could Lombardi make it now? Maraniss (1997) sheds some light about Lombardi in the modern context, almost 36 years after his death. Maraniss (1997) insightfully writes about what Lombardi would like in today’s NFL:

Some go searching for the Old Man (Lombardi) out of a sense of longing for something they believe has been irretrievably lost. Every time some sporting action seems graceless and excessive, every time a player dances and points fingers at himself after making a routine tackle, or a mediocre athlete and his agent hold out for millions, every year these seem more commonplace and accepted, the questions arise: What would Lombardi do about this? Why isn’t there anyone like the Old Man out there anymore? Lombardi’s football philosophy relied on adaptability above all else, reacting to conditions quickly enough to bend things his way. Had he lived longer, he would have persisted in that philosophy, adjusting to the changing times and in so doing making the times bend a little to him. It would have been a fascinating test of what he called will in action (p. 22-23).

Along the same lines, poignantly, then, what would Lombardo think of the outlandish and excessive showboating by NFL players during games? Maraniss (1997) further writes about Lombardi’s response:

When Travis Williams, the exhilarating kickoff return man on his 1967 team, danced a jig after scoring a touchdown that year, a modest ancestor of the elaborate celebrations so common now, the Old Man called him over and appealed to Williams’s pride. “Travis,” he said, “try to act like you’ve been there before.” That was all he had to say. It reinforced the message he gave to his players at the beginning of training camp: You are the Packers, you are professionals, you are above the rest (p. 24).

Lombardi handled the matter in a direct yet appropriate manner, and he sent the message about unnecessary celebrating and showboating. At the beginning of training camp, Lombardi probably would have given his players a collective talk about the importance of character and professionalism, even after scoring thrilling touchdowns. In addition, he probably would have fined players a substantial amount for celebrating touchdowns and going against Lombardi’s policy on proper conduct. Obediently, like good boy scouts, the players would have exhibited exemplary behavior on-the-field because they are Lombardi’s boys; they fear Lombardi’s disapproval and, therefore, do not want to fall from grace and be subjected to the wrath of Lombardi. Again, the flock recognized the distinct voice of its shepherd, its leader, its provider, and Lombardi knew the way and naturally led the way to phenomenal winning in Green Bay. While playing with the Packers, Jerry Kramer said of Lombardi: “We knew that the only difference between being a good football team and a great football team was him and only him” (Phillips, 2001, p. 2). Kramer and the Packer players were right: Lombardi was the way to winning and winning often.

The lasting legacy of Lombardi is a direct measure of the extraordinary life he lived as a great coach and great leader. Mention the name, Lombardi, and so many hear the calling, the call for the football master of all-time. A call for Lombardi translates into serious readiness for hard work, discipline, and a commitment to excellence. Above all, Lombardi represents the winning formula for any organization, promoting character-building at the very core of its existence. Just look at the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, and the evidence is abundantly clear; the Green Bay Packers of Lombardi are the greatest dynasty in NFL history not because they won more consistently than any other team (in NFL history), but because they won with phenomenal success with the same players and the same coach. They were bonded together by their enduring respect for Lombardi and their belief in each other: Their winning ways were Lombardi greatness. No NFL coach has ever experienced such reverence because Lombardi’s will, his character-in-action, transformed average players into good men, achievers, and winners. The Lombardi myth has now become the property of American posterity to appreciate and emulate. From the distance of decades, the spirit of Lombardi as a maker of men continues to flourish in today’s, competitive world. The name, Lombardi, is exhorted as an inspirational force in untold corporate board rooms, in sales meetings, in political rallies, and even at an occasional, Sunday sermon. A symbol for character, courage, and sacrifice, Lombardi remains, even with his passing, the sports ego, the will to win, of American consciousness. Celebrating Lombardi is to celebrate winning and achievement in America. Therefore, remembering the Lombardi legacy is really an act of instilling confidence and faith in doing our best with what God gave us: Who could ask for more? That is why Lombardi was recently acclaimed as “The ESPN Coach of the Century.”

 

References

Bowman, J. (1999). Sacking lombardi. National Review, 51 (23).

Crow, P. J. (1972). Power, leadership, and the jesus model. Vital Speeches of the Day , 38 (8).

Hammill, P. (2000). Winning isn’t everything. Literary Cavalcade, 53 (2).

Haseldine, J. (2003). The academic who lives by lombardi, Review of Optometry, 140 (4).

Lombardi, V. (2001). What It Takes To Be #1. New York:, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Maraniss, D. (1999). When Pride Still Mattered. New York: Simon & Schuster

Paperbacks.

Maraniss, D. (1997). When football mattered. Esquire, 128 (2).

Phillips, D. (2001). Run To Win. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin Publishers.

Ratledge, K. (2001). 10 football coaches who contributed to the game. Coach & Athletic Director, 71 (1).

Rothke, B. (2003). The lombardi way. eWeek, 20 (50).

Scheraga, D. (2004). Technically speaking, lombardi was right. Chain Store Age, 80 (1).http://www.vincelombardi.com/

Singer, A. (2000). Management: the old man’s school. Across The Board, 37 (2).

Weingardt, R.G. (2000). Leaving a legacy. Journal of Management in Engineering, 16 (2).

http://www.vincelombardi.com/. The Official Website of Coach Vince Lombardi.

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